Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
This image shows a Native woman from the Plains region carrying a baby on her back. Want to know if you have Native lineage? Read below to find out how to start looking.

A How-To Guide For Beginning Your Genealogical Journey

Myra Vanderpool Gormley

No matter what they claim on television or online tracing your ancestors is more complicated than clicking on a link or grabbing a family tree from a website.

You know the State Farm television commercial—the one where the girl says, “They can’t put anything on the Internet that isn’t true.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

 “The Internet. Oh look, here comes my date. I met him on the Internet. He’s a French model.”

Then this scruffy looking dude shows up and says, “uhhh, bonjour!” in a non-French accent and they walk away together?

Keep that in mind as you research. There is lots of false information and half-truths out there—especially about genealogy, and especially about Native Americans.

Talk to relatives and learn as much as possible about your heritage. You need three things:

Names (full names, nicknames, and women’s maiden names)

Dates (approximate years are all right)

Places (where they lived or died, married or were born)

Write down the information. In genealogy, you work from the known backward. You can’t start from a famous Indian like Cochise or Red Cloud, even if your family stories claim he is your ancestor, and work forward successfully.

Red Cloud, an Oglala Lakota war leader, led his warriors in Red Cloud's War. (South Dakota State Historical Society)

A primary objective should be to establish any tribal affiliation that your ancestors have or had. Determining what tribe your family belongs to is essential to continued research. For Native American research the vast majority of records are grouped, published, and accessed by tribe, clan, or nation. Sometimes this information is already known by your family members but you may encounter conflicting tales or learn you descend from ancestors from different tribes or that you are of mixed heritage. Interview your older relatives and write down their oral stories.  While these recollections may not be completely accurate in every detail, they are invaluable clues to your past.

If you learn that a grandparent or great-grandparent was part Indian but not a tribal member, or if you have a family tradition about having Indian blood but don’t know which tribe, or if your family has splintered branches with conflicting information, it is critical that you consult all privately held information available about previous generations. This includes oral histories, Bibles, family papers, scrapbooks, photograph albums, and diaries. However, your heritage is not just about tribal membership or lack thereof and each family is unique.

Obtain vital records (birth, death, marriage) for yourself, your parents and all four grandparents. These are usually available from state, county or city vital records offices in the United States. Some are available online. Be forewarned, most of them are not free to obtain. Next, locate your families in the 1940, 1930, 1920, 1910 and 1900 U.S. Censuses. These are online but mostly available through subscription genealogy services. Your local library may have also access.

Work backwards in time. Forget about modern-day standardized name and place spellings—you will encounter many spelling variants in your search. Census enumerations provide information, though are not always 100 percent accurate, about individuals, such as:

Where each family member was born and their age;

Where the father and mother of each person was born;

How long the couple has been married;

Whether it is a first or second marriage for each spouse;

How many children the mother has given birth to and how many of those children were still living at the time of the particular census.

Arm yourself with facts and documentation about your families as you begin to search. Don’t fall for a “French model” tale—your family history deserves better.

Here are some links to explore along the way:

Family Search: American Indian Genealogy

Family Search: American Indian Genealogy Records

Family Search: American Indian Census Rolls

Access Genealogy: Native American History and Genealogy

Cyndi’s List: Native American

Genealogy Branches: Native Americans

Indians By State

Native American Indian Tribes and Languages

Books About Tribes

Myra Vanderpool Gormley is credentialed as a Certified Genealogist by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (1987-2012), retired (2012).

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Finding ones ancestors is a very interesting journey. There are a number of surprises along that road to discovery. Sometimes you can solve age-old family mysteries. You would be surprised at the things you find out. In looking up our native ancestors it varies from tribe to tribe as to what burden of proof is required. The less time that has passed between those ancestors that last had a CDIB card the easier it is to find those birth & death certificates to go along with that tribal application. Sometimes that journey is short & sometimes it may take decades, but no matter what, that journey is always worth it. To know our future is to learn about out past & those who have come before.

builds-the-fire's picture
Submitted by builds-the-fire on
Never think the old ones don't know what they are talking about. I find at every turn: they knew their names, and their history. At some point, I know I'll "find" my relatives. Sometimes I want to throw in the towel, but then I think I need to complete our history for them because they were here. I just have to remember that "they knew" and follow the path of "how our family thinks" in order to find the evidence--beyond the DNA--that they were once here. I feel I owe it to them, and am somehow honoring them by completing our family tree.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
My father did extensive research on our family even traveling to Salt Lake City to review records there. I did find Mexican documentation of my Grandfather's heritage (Apache), but continued documentation for the rest of my family dropped off the radar after my great-grandparents. I suppose the best reason for this is that it didn't behoove Natives to "register" with the government. It wasn't beneficial for us at the time for the government to know how many of us there were and where we lived.

Adawehi's picture
Submitted by Adawehi on
I have noticed that this is a hot topic right now. I have also noticed that so many people are getting frustrated because they have been living in an "instant" mindset , because of fast services like fast food, drive through, instant messaging and have not relized what hard work, hours of reading , and true dedication it takes to strive through this genealogy task. And not only that , many believe that inorder for them to feel Native that they must have a "indian card" or they must deny the Native heritage. Unfortunaly the MAJORITY of Natives at this time are not allowed by the government to have Federal NDN Card.... They want a paper trail , even though DNA is admissable in a court of law concerning guilt or innocence , it has not been allowed yet in proving Native American Rights .... Yet in CPS cases DNA is allowed to prove Native American Ancestery .... Very interesting indeed. I tell people that finding your ancestery is important to know everything about yourself and to keep those ancestor memories alive before they are gone. Being Native American is not just weather or not one can get an NDN card it is the blood , heart, and soul for a better understanding of ourselves and other people in this world no matter who we all are.